How to Spot the Office Narcissist

Just about every company has one in their workplace, the office narcissist. They are often charming and hard to spot, but ignoring them can be at your peril. Narcissists have the ability to literally invent their own reality around them. Everything has to go in towards maintaining their self-image. But can a high sense of self-worth serve them well?

We know narcissists tend to be charismatic. They like to take charge of situations and are more willing and able to take risks. And almost all offices have them; that person whose self-belief exceeds their ability. That one individual who doesn't just belittle their coworkers, they actually consider themselves so special and unique they become infuriated when others fail to recognise them.


The term stems from Greek mythology where the hunter Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. Unfortunately, the self-obsessed narcissist is no myth in the modern workplace. Identifying their behaviour early can save you a lot of stress, but it's not easy.


Narcissism consists of facets, one of which is what psychologists call grandiosity. Narcissists believe themselves superior to other people. One aspect of this grandiosity is that they are self-absorbed, so they focus a lot on themselves and what is good for them. Another facet is their ability to exploit others. Narcissists not only think very highly of themselves, but they also tend to view other people in instrumental terms, i.e., they use colleagues as a kind of stepping stone on the path towards their own success.


Narcissists have the ability to literally invent their own reality around them, regardless of objective fact or evidence or data. Everything they do or say goes towards maintaining their self-image, and they will go to great lengths to preserve their perception of themselves, and how they want other people to perceive them. Someone with narcissistic personality disorder loves to be flattered but hates criticism. Little things like questioning them in a meeting or not fully vocalising your support can lead to massive retribution. Or to put it another way, if you don't unequivocally support them, they are quick to label you as the enemy.


As we’ve already mentioned, narcissists are charming and charismatic, which makes them hard to spot. Sure, we all have attention-seeking people in our lives, and in this day of social media, we all exhibit forms of narcissism. But if you get too close to a true narcissist, you can find yourself trapped and controlled, which can be harming not just to your career, but also to your mental health.


And while they may not sound like hugely sympathetic characters to work with, numerous studies have found that our initial reactions to people with narcissism tend to be quite positive. They are experts at creating good first impressions, do well in their careers and sometimes are even considered a useful business asset. The lack of empathy, the tunnel vision to achieve, the lies and manipulation, are all characteristics prevalent among people who attain positions of power.


Narcissism it seems does have its upsides. Narcissists are more predisposed to engage in change-oriented leadership. They like to take charge of situations as needed and are more willing and able to take risks when required. And in today’s corporate world there are frequently situations where such qualities are considered desirable.


Politicians in general and organisational leaders tend to be more narcissistic than the average population. They are predisposed to use personal pronouns like I, Me, and Mine, and are not particularly interested in listening to the people around them. They believe in their own unique qualities, but is it a trait that is developed over time, or is it something a person is born with?


Psychologists agree that there is both a nature and a nurturing element to narcissism. Studies show that parental practices and experiences in the workplace contribute to narcissism. Individuals born into a family with economic influence or high-income status tend to grow up to become narcissists. Also, a parental style that encourages a child’s self-esteem to an excessive degree, like when parents communicate to their kids that they are special and wonderful, tends to lead to narcissism later on in life.


Narcissists are often incredibly successful individuals, in both their corporate and private lives. They are able to rise up through the ranks because they have that confidence and charisma, and the ability to create the reality they want can serve them to get where they want to go. The very act of behaving as though their version of reality is true can often propel them to achieve high levels of success.


So, is a little bit of narcissism important for your career? If you need to convince investors or customers to give you money, or even if you’re just asking your boss for a raise, self-belief is surely paramount. But at what point does that confidence tip into delusion?


Deluding yourself about how good you are, comes with risks. Overestimating how much other people like you could see you making an arrogant ass of yourself. And while there are lots of circumstances in life in which it pays to be well-calibrated, faking it or fooling yourself about how good you are can lead to a number of predictable and unfortunate errors. It’s true that sometimes the overconfident rise to the top, but when others take their claims of confidence at face value, the narcissist will usually fail to meet the mark.


Leave a Reply